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Since late July, when a special law allowing the dispatch of the Self-Defense Forces to Iraq was enacted, the Japanese media has engaged in a fierce battle to report when, where and how many personnel will be sent to the war-ravaged country.

The battle intensified after Oct. 9, when a government fact-finding mission returned from Iraq, as details of the dispatch were to be decided after the mission filed its report.

As the media scramble heated up, conflicting information and articles apparently more based on guesswork than on facts began to appear.

For example, a day after one newspaper reported that the main activities of the SDF would be to help ensure stable supplies of water and electricity, another said the Defense Agency had begun considering having the SDF help repair an Iraqi port.

“I wish I could paste up past reports one by one and proclaim, ‘This was right but this was not’,” remarked one Ground Self-Defense Force officer who is critical of the twists and turns of the media reports.

But the situation can partly be blamed on the Diet and the government.

The wording of the law is vague and has left the actual details — such as the duration, areas of dispatch and nature of the activities to be performed — for the government to decide. But the government, in turn, has decided to remain silent until after the Nov. 9 general election, effectively fueling the speculative media reports.

However, the media coverage spawned by the shroud of secrecy also reveals something of the nature of the Japanese media.

In the three weeks from Oct. 9, three major Japanese newspapers — the Asahi Shimbun, Mainichi Shimbun and Yomiuri Shimbun — ran a total of 68 stories about the SDF dispatch to Iraq, of which 21 appeared on the front page. Many were presented as “scoops.”

Few of these articles, however, were based on solid sources. Flimsy reasoning, such as drawing a conclusion that the government has begun considering a certain course of action by simply citing part of the fact-finding mission’s report, has also been commonplace.

Although leaving the sources of news stories vague has long been a custom in Japanese reporting, the slew of media reports on the dispatch of the SDF has earned them the less than flattering description of “guesswork” by observers.

Yet, for many reporters, writing stories based on what little they learn after calling on key officials during the early morning and late night hours when they are most likely to have free time is the only course of action when what is effectively a gag order is imposed by the government.

Hiroshi Fujita, a professor of journalism at Sophia University, however, questions the Japanese media’s wisdom in putting so much effort into what he terms “trivial issues.”

He sees the current reports on the SDF dispatch as another example of the “shortsighted competition” so common in the Japanese media.

“The essential question should be whether sending the SDF to Iraq really serves Japan’s long-term interests and, if the government is to send the SDF, why so,” said Fujita, a former journalist with Kyodo News Service.

“The real scoops are the ones that present to and remind the public where Japan is heading, like the underlying trends behind domestic politics,” he added. “Competition should be waged over things that would otherwise be buried forever, but are surely in the public interest, such as bribery and corruption cases.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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